More Health Insurance Providers Back Coverage for Adult Children

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WASHINGTON - Three major health insurance companies have announced they will continue to provide coverage to dependent children on family plans until the age of 26 — a popular part of the federal health care reform law of 2010 — regardless of how the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the law’s constitutionality later this month.

The announcements by United Healthcare, Aetna and Humana have put competitive pressure on other large insurance providers such as the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, WellPoint and CIGNA, which have yet to follow suit.

“The speculation is that many customers have come to expect certain measures in their policies and it’ll be hard to take those back,” Devon Harrick, a senior economist at the National Center for Policy Analysis, told Youth Today. But it remains to be seen how long insurance companies keep those provisions as part of their plans, especially if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (informally called “Obamacare”) or if competitors begin to offer less expensive, stripped-down policies some months down the line, Harrick cautioned.

Adults between the ages of 18 and 24 experienced the greatest gains in health coverage of any age group since the passage of the law. This is a result of the provision requiring dependents to be covered until they reach 26, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“My hunch is that other insurance companies are likely to follow suit but I can also see them saying we will sit back and see what the market supports,” said Art Kellermann, director of the health research division at the RAND Corporation. With some companies getting a lot of positive press coverage as a result of their announcements, he said,  “One can imagine some animated conversations in some C-suites this week.”

Within hours of United Healthcare’s statement yesterday, two other companies, Aetna and Humana, affirmed their own intention to maintain some provisions even if federal law no longer required them. These include eliminating lifetime dollar limits on policies, eliminating co-pays for preventative care, and keeping adult children — even those who are married, are eligible for other insurance programs, or are not students – on their parents’ insurance policies until they are 26.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association issued its own statement yesterday saying it would not try to guess how the court may rule but that it “is encouraging its 38 companies to offer their customers the broadest set of protections possible at an affordable price.”

Insurance provider WellPoint said it would wait until the court ruling before announcing its plans. A call to CIGNA was not returned by deadline.

Harrick thinks there’s a risk that as the economy improves, the only young adults who will remain on their parents’ plans are those who are uninsurable in the regular market, which will drive up costs for insurance companies.

Kellermann disagrees.

“Being able to stay on a parents’ plan for those first few critical years is good for young people and a source of comfort for moms and dads,” Kellermann said. Young adults face high unemployment rates in this economy, and even when they do qualify for insurance through work, it’s usually “so skimpy as to hardly constitute health insurance,” he said.

“The most important message is that whether we have an Affordable Care Act or not, the challenges of the health care system in this country are going to be there no matter what the legislative framework is, and as a country we’re going to have to deal with that,” Kellermann said. “The private insurance industry is at the center of that game.”